How to Manipulate People-7 Signs of a Con Artist You Need to Know to Avoid Being a Victim

Doug Staneart  |  February 15, 2023
last updated

How to Manipulate PeopleI know… The title “How to Manipulate People” sounds bad and unethical, but I got you to view the post didn’t I? The question is, did I manipulate you into viewing this post, or did I persuade you? There is a fine line between the two. Since I have written a number of posts over the years about persuasion, I thought it might be fun to explore the darker side. So, below, you will find seven signs of a con artist that you absolutely need to know to avoid being a victim.

Since we are in the political season here in the United States, I will use a few of the most successful con artists in the game… Politicians as my examples. If you explore this entire post, you may begin to understand that “politician” is just another word for “con man.”

Manipulation, Persuasion, and Influence… What is the Difference Between these Terms?

Persuade versus ManipulateThe major difference between persuading someone or manipulating them tends to rely on who benefits from the action. For instance, manipulation occurs if I get you to do something that benefits me but harms you. The person who is manipulating often uses deception in the process. On the other hand, if the manipulated person benefits from the action, the term persuasion is often used.

Western law is based on Judeo-Christian principles of right and wrong. So, if you adhere to these principles, the difference between persuasion and manipulation seems obvious. However, if your morality or belief system is based elsewhere, the difference is a huge gray area.

I once hired an account manager who was incredibly charismatic and likable. In fact, she was one of my best salespeople for quite a while. After a while, though, I started noticing odd things happening with her clients. It started small. For instance, on occasion, she would “accidentally” charge the client a discounted price to close the sale. In others, she might charge the customer an inflated price to increase her commission. I remember having a few discussions with her about ethics and morality.

Eventually, I had to let her go. I found out later that she had previously co-owned a competitive company. From what I could determine, her partners had somehow cheated her out of her equity in the company. It is possible that each of the partners was somewhat shady. It is also possible that the first experience jaded her. Her mentality shifted to “cheat others before they cheat you.”

I tend to find that people who manipulate others have a seared conscience. They see others as being cheaters, so they see nothing wrong with cheating them first.

If You Decide to Manipulate Others, Beware of Karma.

Karma Cause and EffectI love magic. In fact, I just purchased a subscription to Master Class because Penn & Teller teach a magic class there. Magic, though, is pure deception. The magician is deceiving you into thinking a certain way so that he can surprise you. So, as a consumer, I welcome this deception. It makes the process more fun.

However, if I find that I have been deceived and manipulated in a transaction, I have a very different reaction. I’m sure you do as well. The old Hindu term Karma often comes into play. For every action, there is a cause and effect.

Since I will be using politicians as examples, this is a good time to explain the 2020 US Presidential election. (By the way, this also goes for the 2016 election as well.) Throughout my lifetime, politicians have been promising that if they get elected, they would fix problems. Then, four years later, they make the same exact promises.

President Donald Trump has a huge population who absolutely loves him. He also has a huge population who detests him. If you are in the latter, you may not understand why so many people would crawl over broken glass to vote for him. Since he was elected, though, politicians on both sides of the aisle have shown him contempt. Hopefully, as you read further, you may begin to see why. Because the thing that con men despise most is a person who exposes the con.

How to Know When Someone Is Manipulating You. Part One: The Emotional Appeal.

At their root, magic tricks and confidence games share the same fundamental principle: a manipulation of our beliefs.” – Maria Konnikova, Author of Confidence Game.

Con artists realize that the beliefs of people are more malleable in a heightened state of emotion. If you think about it, when we get really angry, we don’t think very rationally. I have, on very rare occasion, see my sweet, amiable wife get so angry that she does something extremely out of character. (Forget that it is often me who caused this anger to be there in the first place. That is beside the point.)

Since people do act out-of-character when in a highly emotional state, con artists often use emotion to manipulate.

Manipulators Often Encourage a State of High Emotion in their Victims.

Con Artists Will Illicit High Emotion StatesThere is an interesting type of physiology called Neurolinguistic Programming or NLP. It is a fascinating study of human behavior and persuasion. Although the study is really complex, there are a few basic concepts that are important. The first is that people like and are attracted to people who are like them. So manipulators often begin by doing things to be in rapport with their mark or victim. Second, the manipulator with try to put their victim into a “state” where they are more susceptible to suggestions.

By the way, they call this “state” a trance but don’t let the term fool you. A better term to describe these moments would be a daydream. These are those moments for just a second, your mind wanders and is forming images or a narrative. The mind tends to be very creative when it wanders. If you have ever been singing in the shower, and then, all of the sudden, a solution to a tough problem is obvious, you have experienced this phenomenon.

Any emotion will do. However, anger, uncontrollable laughter, or fear are the most common emotions used. These strong emotions cause people to react or create a behavior change.

The Easiest Way to Elicit a Trance or Daydream Is Tell a Narrative or Story.

The easiest way to elicit a trance in a victim is to tell a narrative. For instance, have you ever been watching a great movie and been totally engrossed by it? This also happens when you are reading a novel or listening to an audiobook. The story just captivates us. Even though our bodies are in a theater or on a sofa, our minds are actually in the story.

Anecdotal stories work in much the same way. Manipulators will often use a story of a single incident to get the listener to believe the example is global. Human nature is that if it happened once, it can happen again. Below are a few examples of narratives used to heighten an emotional state.

Keep in mind that not all of the examples below are manipulating the crowds they are speaking to. Telling a good story to reinforce a point is a fantastic way to prove your point. It is what happens next that determines whether the speaker is manipulating the listener.

Once the Victim Is in the Emotional State, the Manipulator Creates an Anchor.

The next phase of the emotional state is to anchor the emotion to a trigger. In the 1890’s Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment with his dogs. He noticed that every time that he walked into a room with their food bowls, the dog’s mouths started watering. He theorized that the vision of the bowls was a trigger to let them know that food was coming. So, he decided to add a new trigger to see if it would work as well. He would ring a bell just before he fed them each day. This created an “anchor” or a new trigger. Whenever he rang the bell, the mouths started watering. This occurred even if he didn’t feed them right away.

These anchors themselves are neither good nor bad. But if a person understands how to use them, he or she can manipulate others into having feelings about certain things (or people.)

For instance, I recently noticed that since Covid hit, I’ve gained about 15 pounds. I was putting on my pants the other day, and part of my waist rolled over my belt. Knowing how anchors work, a took a close-up photo of my beltline. Next, I made the photo my phone wallpaper. Every time I craved a sweet, I opened my phone and (quickly lost my appetite.) After a couple of days, the anchor was set. I didn’t need the photo anymore.

A few of the speeches above have auditory anchors attached to the story. For instance, Joe Biden ends by saying, “Kristin said her dad’s only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump.” He is anchoring Covid deaths to Donald Trump. Romney says, “I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed.” He was attempting to anchor the bad economy to Obama’s policies.

When Learning How to Manipulate Other People, the Emotional State Is Just the First Phase.

By the way, if you have never studied manipulation or persuasion techniques, you are probably thinking, “Oh, come on. Telling a story and then blaming the results of the story on your opponent? That will never work.” And, you’d be right — if that was all that was being done.

The high emotional state is just the first phase. Watch the excerpt below from the movie “The Sting.” Pay attention to the multiple instances of high emotion. First, the characters foil an armed robbery. Next, the mark returns a wad of cash to the “victim.” Then, the “victim” tells the bystanders that he will be killed if the huge stack of money isn’t dropped off. While Robert Redford switches the money, the “victim” rants about his sick family.

The whole scene shows how emotion influences the behavior of the bystander. “The Mark” gives all of his money to a complete stranger. His behavior is irrational. However, he does it out of fear.

The Second Phase of a Con Is Establishing the “Villan” and the “Victim.”

Going back to the scene from The Sting, the (1) narrative that unfolds in front of the (2) “Mark” creates a (3) villain and a (4) victim. A person robs and stabs a man creating a victim. The Mark sympathizes (emotionally connects) with the man who was both robbed and stabbed. The Victim then tells a narrative about how the mob is going to kill him if he doesn’t deliver money to them by 4:00 PM. The Mark now perceives the mob as the villain. The (5) Convincer (Robert Redford) adds to the narrative by pretending to be the moral and righteous third-party.

Let’s define each part of the manipulation or con.

  1. Narrative – The Narrative is the storyline that is told to facilitate the manipulation. The narrative begins in step one but comes to fruition in phase three.
  2. Mark – The person being conned is the Mark.
  3. Villain – The Victim and the Convincer create a fictitious Villian. Incidentally, the villain is almost never a person. Vague groups make the best villains.
  4. Victim – When the manipulators tell the narrative, they create a victim that elicits anger or sympathy from the mark. In many cases, you can uncover the manipulation by looking more closely at the victim. When the circumstances surrounding the victim begin to not match the narrative, the manipulation is exposed.
  5. Convincer – The Convincer verifies the narrative. Most often, the manipulation will depict the convincer with grandiose terms like “Boy Scout” or “Honorable” to add credibility. You can also uncover the manipulation by looking more closely at the Convincer. Once you find misleading or dishonorable statements from this person, the con folds quickly.

The Manipulator Creates a Villain to Divert the Emotion (and Investigation) from the Manipulator.

The manipulator can’t be seen as the villain. So, he or she must create a villain. In some cases, the manipulator uses “projection” to divert focus from his or her bad actions to a different person.

Remember the purpose of the con — “manipulation of our beliefs.” The victim is really the villain. The villain is really the victim. Once the two get intertwined so tightly, the manipulator confuses and frustrates the mark so much that he or she doesn’t know what to believe anymore.

For instance, let’s say that a man cheats on his wife. His wife begins to get suspicious. So, at a restaurant, he suddenly says, “I saw the way you looked at the waiter!” Keep in mind that the incident is totally made up. The wife did nothing wrong. However, the cheating husband persists.

Eventually, the wife may begin to question whether she did or not. She might think, “The waiter is an attractive man. Maybe I did look at him a little too long.” Whether the wife actually begins to believe the lie is irrelevant, though. The manipulator will bring up the lie as a projection to cover up his own infidelity. When confronted with his cheating, he will respond with, “Well isn’t this rich. I catch you flirting with every waiter that smiles at you and you accuse ME of cheating.”

The manipulator has now switched the roles in the narrative. The cheating husband becomes the victim. The suspicious wife now takes on the role of the villain.

Manipulators Will Use Vague Language or Gibberish to Describe the Villain or Victim.

In the movie clip, the Victim describes the Villain as just “the mob.” The description is vague. In politics (and in the media,) these vague terms get thrown around all the time to manipulate people. If the manipulator describes the villain specifically, the mark can easily verify the authenticity of the statement. However, if the manipulator uses vague language, the listener will have a tougher time verifying the truth.

In some cases, the manipulator uses an accurate description but the description causes deception as well.

Here are a few that you may be familiar with.

Just as with the videos above, I put in an equal number of left-wing and right-wing terms. You will know who influences you most by the ones that you agree with. For instance, I’m a business owner. My political preference is for government to just leave me alone and let me do my thing. As a result, I am more influenced by conservatives. When I look at the list, I say, “Yup, Fake News –That statement is totally accurate. However, how can rioters be ‘mostly peaceful?'”

Someone more influenced by CNN or MSNBC, however, might say, “News isn’t fake just because you don’t agree with it. And, how in the world can you align yourself with white supremacists?”

The truth is that both sides have been manipulated. Both have had reality distorted. No matter which side you are on, you now believe that there is a villain waiting in the shadows to destroy your way of life.

Let’s Analyse these Victims and Villains.

Systemic Racism

If you ever saw the movie “The Matrix.” the hero is told a secret about the world. The world doesn’t really exist. He and the entire population of Earth are trapped in a computer program called The Matrix. The Matrix must be defeated to gain true freedom for humanity. Sound familiar? The people using this term are using emotional, anecdotal instances of a person of color dying while fighting police to create the narrative. They then use the term as an anchor to trigger the same emotional response in the hearer. So, every time we hear the term “Systemic Racism,” we automatically begin to think about the anger we had after watching George Floyd die.

Think about it though. What system? The people using the term never define this. Is it the system created by the liberal Mayor of Minneapolis or the black Chief of Police? The fact that you can’t define the system makes it a good villain for manipulators to use. This way, the system can never be fixed, so you have to keep voting for the manipulators over and over. (By the way, I realize that making a statement like this just shows the world my “White Privilege.” So be it.

Fake News

President Trump has very effectively created a trigger to associate CNN with the term “Fake News.” To be fair to the President, all news reports are biased. Some reporters are biased toward conservative issues and others are biased toward liberal issues. However, Trump has created a rallying call against any news agency that is biased against him. They are all just”Fake News.”

Again, though, if you just think about it a little, you see more truth. Not every news story that is negative toward the President is made up.

White Supremacists

I went to college in the Garth Brooks years. (Yes, I’m old, and no, I am not saying that people who listen to country music are racist. I’m showing something different entirely.) One of my friends used to make fun of the music we listened to. He’d say, “Nothing like writing a song that is true about every single person who listens to it.” He said that right after the sing said, “Some girls don’t like boys like me… But some girls do.”

Many terms used to create a villain are similar. Who in their right mind (pun intended) would support white supremacists? Well… no one. If a politician wants to get votes, though, he or she can say that the White Supremacists or voting for the other guy. Of course, no actual White Supremacists will ever make a statement and correct the falsity. It not like you can run down to your local Klu Klux Klan membership hall and take a poll.

Environmental Wackos

Years ago, a group of environmentalists filed a lawsuit in California to preserve an endangered fish called the Delta Smelt. Shortly after that, the term Environmentalist Wacko began to be used frequently to describe a nebulous group of radical environmentalists. The term is used to make people think that this group wants to deindustrialize the world and take us back to a village agrarian society.

Just like with the other villains, I doubt very seriously that anyone who was passionate about that lawsuit wants to give up their car or iPhone.


This one is actually the funniest one to me because it is so ironic. The most famous Fascist party in history was the NAZI party in Germany. Nazi is the common way of describing the National Socialist German Workers Party. They were socialists, not capitalists. However, the people who commonly call their adversaries fascists are people who describe themselves as socialists. (They also tend to be antisemitic.)

This villain is just like the White Supremacists in that there isn’t an American NAZI party that is going to make a public correction.


People will sometimes use the term Snowflakes as both a victim and a villain. Snowflakes have thin skin and can be easily offended. As a result, just as with the fascist and KKK, no one ever claims to be a part of this group. Perhaps we should create a nonprofit that defends the honor of the Snowflake?

Mostly Peaceful Protesters

When the riots were occurring in major cities all over the US, many news reporters were using the term “Mostly Peaceful Protesters.” These poor victims were innocent bystanders as White Supremacists came out of the crowds, stole alcohol and ATMs, then melted back into the peaceful assemblies.

The real victims of these protests were the minority business owners who lost everything because riots are not covered by most business insurance policies.

Deep State

The Deep State represents the bureaucracies that make up the permanent agencies of the US government. Presidents come and go. Congress and Senators come and go. But the Deep State is always here. This villain probably has more truth associated with it than the other villains I brought up. However, it has the same main problem as all the others. It is vague and nameless.

In the last 24 years, Republican presidents served 12 years and Democratic Presidents served 12 years. Assuming that we hire close to an equal number of federal employees every year, then the political persuasion of the bureaucrats are probably pretty equal. It also seems to me that the ones that were hired under the Obama administration would be the newest and least powerful.

So, if the Deep State is really out to get the current administration, they are most likely political appointees. If that is the case, why have they not been fired? Just like many of the other villains, once you scrutinize the group a little, it falls apart.

The Third Phase of a Manipulation Is Creating the Narrative.

I talked about the narrative in part one. The manipulator tells a story that has a little bit of truth and a lot of deception. A great manipulator figures out what your innermost desires are and then promises to make those desires happen. The promise though always depends on you doing something in return. Unfortunately, after you do your part, the villain pops in and ruins the whole thing. You are left disappointed.

However, if you continue to support the narrative, it is just a matter of time before you defeat the villain once and for all. (Which never happens.)

Manipulators Use Association Through Correlation (Or Vice Versa) to Fuel the Image of the Villain.

In science, two variables can have an association without necessarily being correlated to one another. For instance, a study may determine that people who drink more than four cups of coffee per day have lower instances of skin cancer. Coffee consumption and skin cancer instances are associated with one another. However, that doesn’t mean that if you drink more coffee, you will reduce your chances of skin cancer. It might be that people who consume more coffee tend to spend more time indoors and receive less sunlight.

Manipulators make associations with data and jump to improper correlations. This improper conclusion increases the validity of the villain.

Here is an example:

This video has been viewed almost three million times on YouTube. The hypocrisy is actually kind of funny when you think about it. The premise in the video is that black kids are poor and uneducated and white kids are rich and smart. Guess what caused these differences? That’s right, the big villain.

The major point here is that the people making this movie want you to believe that Jamal is poor because he is black. (Which in and of itself seems incredibly racist to me.) Since he is black, all of the systems are against him. However, to make this statement is a huge jump of logic.
The logic is (1) Jamal’s grandparents were discriminated against in the 1930s so they couldn’t buy a house. As a result, (2) his mother and father also couldn’t buy a house because they weren’t allowed to go to college. Therefore,(3) Jamal will also never be able to go to college and is more likely to be killed by police for minding his own business. (Totally makes sense.)

The Truth About Systemic Racism and Redlining.

According to the video, the banking industry, public schools, government, and universities are all full of racists who want to keep Jamal from succeeding. I have to admit. I had never heard of the term redlining before watching the video. So, I looked it up. I found a few propaganda articles similar to the video. Then, I happened on an NPR article called Forgotten History: How the US Government Segregated America.

According to the NPR article, redlining was not a banking policy at all. In 1933, the Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) administration began a policy of segregating the US. They created a New Deal department called the Federal Housing Authority (FHA.)

“…the housing programs begun under the New Deal were tantamount to a ‘state-sponsored system of segregation.’
The government’s efforts were ‘primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families…’ African-Americans and other people of color were left out of the new suburban communities — and pushed instead into urban housing projects.

“…the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.”

Apparently, there is a reason why Democratic politicians use the term “Systemic Racism.” It might be embarrassing to say that their hero, FDR created the policy that led to Jamal being so poor.

7 Signs of a Con Artist You Need to Know to Avoid Being a Victim

Okay, so now we know that people are trying to deceive us and manipulate us. What the heck do we do about it. What are the signs that we should be looking out for?

  1. Be On Your Guard When Emotions Are High.
  2. When you see charismatic speakers or groups exhibiting high emotions, be skeptical of what they are saying. There is a good chance they are attempting to deceive you.

  3. Look for Alterations in the Language.
  4. Manipulators use language to deceive. Look for “updated” versions of the same argument. For instance, in the 1980s, there were warnings of “Global Cooling.” In the 1990s it changed to “Global Warming.” Now, advocates fight against “Climate Change.”

  5. Identify the Real Villains and Victims.
  6. Dig deep into the narrative to figure out who the real villains and victims are. Often, you will find that they are the exact opposite of what the manipulator is telling you. (Remember the minority business owners in Minneapolis whose life savings went up in smoke.)

  7. Be On the Lookout for Vague Language or Global Stereotypes.
  8. Ask way more questions when people make vague promises. “You have to have a plan. I have a plan!” “…Uuhhh, what exactly is this plan?”

  9. Invstigate the Sources and Look for the Convincer.
  10. When news media reports say, “According to two anonymous sources within [any group,]” no need to read or listen to anything more. Everything related to that story is probably absolutely false. Either the news media or the sources are the Convincer in the con.

  11. Manipulators Often Use Permissive Language.
  12. A good con artist will give you permission to verify their word. Keep in mind that since they are likely speaking gibberish or vague promises, you won’t be able to verify them. They will say things like, “Feel free to…” or “You’re welcome to…” In addition, they will often tell you that you can trust them. “I’m not lying,” or “This is the truth.” I have always found that people who are telling the truth don’t have to actually tell you that they are telling the truth.

  13. Remember that No One Can Manipulate You Unless You Let Them.
  14. The major thing to remember out of all of this is that no one can force you to believe something without your permission. Often, the manipulator will offer something that you really want. As a result, you will also want to believe them. Look for the ulterior motive, though, and be on guard for con artists.

author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is president of The Leader's Institute ®. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Region. He is a specialist in corporate team building activities and custom presentation skills seminars.
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